Friday, January 28, 2011

if you have to ask

When jazz was on the border between subcultural pleasure and mainstream commodity, Louis Armstrong was asked to define it. Although perhaps apocryphal, the story goes that he replied -- if you have to ask, you'll never know.

Nevertheless, I did think that, as a second post, I might try to explain why the phrase I ain't studying you appeals to me. The task poses a bit of a dilemma. That is, it forces me to confront two (of many) opposing forces in the stalled cultural "dialogue about race" in the United States. At one end, we have the proponents of cultural diversity. Put in charitable terms, these are cultural relativists who believe equality and understanding can come from a sharing of "perspectives" and-- usually--food and dancing. Although in theory this sort of ethnic sharing is supposed to avoid making any one culture central, diversity in the United States means "divergence" from a presumably white American-ness. This tendency places an undue burden on non-white people to explain themselves to what can only seem like a mainstream culture suffering from Alzheimer's. We remember white granddad, but he doesn't seem to remember us. So we have to let him feel our hair, nose, and face and sing him one of our people's traditional songs in the hopes of a brief flicker of recognition. The product has been the other pole--a group of deservedly exhausted non-white folks who are tired of explaining themselves and, in fact, refuse to do it. Their credo would be something like: To hell with explaining myself to you. Read a book!

Finding the middle is not always a virtue, especially if the poles keep moving (as they do with the two major parties in US politics). So, even if I make the wishy-washy concession, as I will here, that "both sides have a point," you can rest assured, it will not be my habit.  I still believe one has to choose in order to avoid paralysis. Luckily, we get to make a series of choices and correct for past errors.

In this case, though I do tire of having to explain myself to a white majority that always has the choice to listen or to stop their ears, I also chose an explaining profession. I am an educator. So, for me, the question is not whether to explain things across cultures, it's when, how, and with what amount of my energy. Of course, there is the larger question of why--to what ends do I explain? For me, that answer has two parts. First, there is the human desire to want to be heard and understood by somebody--anybody. The second aspect is a bit more specific to African-American life. To quote James Baldwin:
A people at the center of the Western world, and in the midst of so hostile a population, has not endured and transcended by means of what is patronizingly called a 'dialect.' We, the blacks, are in trouble, certainly, but we are not doomed, and we are not inarticulate because we are not compelled to defend a morality that we know to be a lie.

This is not to suggest that I am interested in donating my time to be the earthy black conscience of whites who, by their elevation, have lost touch with their--you get the drift. No Jimminy-Cricket in blackface for me. I'm not that altruistic. I am willing to "explain" to white people not for their own moral betterment--although that's a perfectly acceptable by-product. Instead, I am hoping to ensure more just treatment. I am hoping to inspire not a personal conversion but a disposition toward decision-making that does not immediately rule out the voices of the very parties who are most adversely impacted. In a deliciously precise and understated gloss, Toni Morrison calls this "studied indifference." Think about that. She means that people got diplomas and degrees, filled libraries, and funded research on not studying you.
My grandmother, Miss Corine, used this phrase as the indisputable conclusion to a matter in which she would invest no further. She might have started off talking about a particular television program she liked, or the numbers she was going to play that week. And you might have decided to interject that Mrs. Jenkins doesn't like that program or Mrs. Jenkins says that playing numbers is a sin. And Miss Corine would look at you and say I ain't studing Miss Jenkins. There wouldn't be any more explanation or thought. Grandma was unruffled. The cooking or the Po-ke-no continued as it had. The cards shuffled. The pinto beans simmered. Jenkins was dismissed.

Obviously, my grandmother meant, in simple terms, that she was not paying any more attention to this particular critic. But for me, as a blackademic, the term has taken on even more resonance. I think about what a scholar or an investigative reporter does: the notebooks, the interviews and transcripts, the post-it notes in dog-eared books, the marked-up drafts--and the abandoned avenues. It's a feat of memory (and forgetting) that allows any work to go forward. Good works takes a lot of studyin.

That's why, for me, my grandmother's saying speaks to what we allow into our head-space, whose priorities, what points-of-view. More important, it acknowledges that not all of them are always helpful to me. I am not required to be "fair and balanced" in the disingenuous mode of Fox News (which leans right) or the sincere but, I think, naive mode of Jon Stewart, who seems to disdain extremity simply by virtue of its being extreme. But let us not be fooled that the middle ground is always morally where one belongs.

For example, it seems indefensible to me to say that gays and lesbians (for lack of a better term) who otherwise served with distinction should have had their military careers threatened because of their sexual partners. Now, the other side may talk about a Christian nation, but what the discharged person is asking for does not prevent the evangelical from worshiping in this nation as she wishes. To the contrary, the evangelical's position actually takes food off the discharged soldier's table. So, in this matter, I cannot take the middle ground. I ain't studing the evangelicals on this one. (My feelings about the use of the US military are, in this case, not the point. I am simply recognizing it as a government employer that should not be permitted to dismiss people without demonstrated failures to perform the job. Frankly, my Jesuit education makes me think of the military an instrument that can be used for good or evil and not as inherently one or the other).

In this case, my grandmother's phrase leads me to set aside certain viewpoints that have been paid too much attention, granted too much power, solicited, coddled, appeased, and allowed to run roughshod over others. Nope. Ain't studying them.

So the most important thing about this blog Aint Studying You, I dare to say the essence of it that I hope to maintain and convey--despite the inevitable distortions of its translation from speech to writing to html (covered in a later post)--is that there has been a disparity in attention paid. And if we are to have this necessary cross-cultural dialogue and it is to result in a movement toward justice and harmony, then there are certain things which must absorb our focus and others which must be cleared away, like the proverbial plank in the eye.

In that sense, I unabashedly avow who I am and where I'm looking from. Not because it is necessarily the single truth. Not even because I think it is utterly unique. But rather because my hope is that it is not, that it overlaps, it touches, it connects and is part of a conversation that allows us all to think differently. So, in honor of my grandmother, welcome to Aint Studying You.

1 comment:

  1. My friend MKN has kindly offered that the most appropriate spelling might be "I ain't stutting you." Tip of the hat.